In the midst of revelations that the government has conducted extensive top-secret surveillance operations to collect domestic phone records and internet communications, the Justice Department was due to file a court motion Friday in its effort to keep secret an 86-page court opinion that determined that the government had violated the spirit of federal surveillance laws and engaged in unconstitutional spying.
Enter the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a public interest group focused on digital rights. It quickly filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Justice Department for any written opinion or order of the FISA court that held government surveillance was improper or unconstitutional. The Justice Department did not respond, and EFF was forced to file a lawsuit a month later.
It took the Justice Department four months to reply. The government’s lawyers noted that they had located records responsive to the request, including a FISA court opinion. But the department was withholding the opinion because it was classified.
EFF pushed ahead with its lawsuit, and in a filing in April, the Justice Department acknowledged that the document in question was an 86-page opinion the FISA court had issued on October 3, 2011. Again, there was no reference to the specific surveillance activity that the court had found improper or unconstitutional. And now the department argued that the opinion was controlled by the FISA court and could only be released by that body, not by the Justice Department or through an order of a federal district court. In other words, leave us alone and take this case to the secret FISA court itself.